In 1986, I was 41 years old, and life was pretty good. I had it all: professionally satisfied, rabbi of a very large congregation, a terrific wife, four young children, two girls, two boys, expecting our fifth in three months. In my business, “the rabbi business” some 13 years post-ordination, I was convinced I had seen it all: the continuum, life, death and everything in between. And as a “Good Rabbi” I was instructed in what to say and even how to say it, dispensing traditional wisdom, comfort, and perspective. For whatever reason, I was insulated and protected from life’s bad stuff, again life was better than good.
But then – and I guess in the story of life there is always a “but then.” Our older son, four-year-old Eyal, is in serious respiratory distress. The medical opinion is a deep-seated lesion on his brainstem, a death sentence, at most several weeks. The specifics of the narrative are not necessary, suffice to say, after surgery Eyal suffers an incapacitating brain stem stroke leaving him a total quadriplegic. All his necessary human functions are artificially maintained. But Eyal persists and perseveres, defying his doctors and their harsh prognosis and everyone else who has reminded him of what he cannot do. Now 32, Eyal lives with my wife and me. He had a Bar Mitzvah, he graduated high school and college.
Being a parent of a child so physically broken, so dependent on others, changed me. It was as if a new life started for me the day of Eyal’s stroke. I wish I could have learned these important life lessons taking a class, studying a book, hearing others’ stories. But I learned the painful and at times inspiring lessons firsthand.
It has taken me years to get it right. To distinguish between the essential and the irrelevant. I may not always act on my belief system. Like a lot of folks, there remains a divide between creed and deed. But I find myself much more accepting, tolerant, and inclusive, preferring to err on the side of forgiveness than righteous indignation. I’ve learned about context and perspective. I’ve learned a new definition of community. There are certain things like poverty, illness, and vulnerability that do not distinguish between class, gender, race, national origin, or faith. And I’ve learned about random acts of generosity and kindness in the most unexpected places from the most unexpected people.
Looking at Eyal, so physically broken, I sometimes wonder if I knew then, March 1986, what I know now, that I would have to redefine my goals and ambitions, both personal and professional, the quality of my relationships, the definition of friendship and authenticity. I am not so sure I would have had the wisdom, faith, confidence, temperament, and persistence to handle what some suggest as impossible challenges. But I did do it, discovering strength and even a faith reaffirmed that I never thought possible. I used to think the punctuation of life begins and ends with an exclamation point. But what I’ve learned is that the punctuation of life is more like the ellipsis … you see the story never ends.
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